Things I Have Learned About Finding a Job since Graduating from College

I graduated from college a couple of years ago, long enough to no longer be called a recent grad, but still fresh enough to be working at the bottom rung of a very large company. As distinguished speakers take to quads and sports stadiums on campuses across the country to give some advice to the leaders of tomorrow, I realize I don’t remember much of the commencement speech from my graduation, just that it was outside exposed to the elements on an unusually frigid and rainy Chicago spring day. Someone made a joke about pirates, I recall. I was cold and miserable then, more concerned with ways to prevent the rain from soaking my collar, but I wish I had been told a few things:

Things are not going to work out immediately. Though the recession is officially over, half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, and there’s a good chance your first job won’t even require that degree you ponied up for. That’s especially true if you had a fake major (who knew all those classes about masculinity and Japanese pop culture wouldn’t pay off?), and aren’t planning to spend the next decade in a grad school or injecting things into mice, which I’m pretty sure is the main thing scientists do. 

Be aware that more and more companies have realized that they can fill the lowest rungs in the office with a slew of unpaid internships, and in some industries, you should probably expect to work for free at first. This is most certainly not fair but is nonetheless the case. If you don’t want to be like those characters in Girls, be willing to work part time in the evenings, after your internship ends. Most bar, coffee shop and other service sector gigs are open outside of the regular business day, so you can probably fit in a few hours here and there to pay the rent.

Don’t move to New York. Especially if you aren’t from there originally, and don’t have a job lined up. It is incredibly expensive and everyone else will be competing for the exact same positions as you. There are plenty of lovely Midwestern cities (or even Philadelphia) with affordable rents to choose from if you’re thinking of striking it out alone.

Send all of the emails to all of the jobs that are hiring. All of them. You can decide whether or not you want the job when they offer it to you. Until then, suspend your disbelief and keep your eyes open. Applying for jobs is like playing roulette: Maybe you will teach children how to play sports, be an archivist at the Football Hall of Fame, or work for an aggregation website in a city 500 miles away. Who knows!

If you have more than two or three different versions of your resume, you are doing it wrong. And after applying for job number five, you should have plenty of cover letters to be able to cut and paste paragraphs to suit your needs. Just be sure to change out the name of the company you’re applying to. And don’t start too many sentences with “I”.

There is a feature on Gmail that will allow you to immediately unsend an email if you realize you misspelled the HR person’s name a second after pressing send. Enable that feature. If you misspell someone’s name in a thank you email, you are never going to get that job. But do send thank yous after a job interview. Not immediately — don’t seem desperate. Wait a good 24 hours. Rule of thumb is to follow normal dating protocol, but without any of the alcohol. Also, if you smoke, don’t smell like cigarettes on the way in. Smoke afterwards. It might calm your nerves, but unless you’re applying to RJ Reynolds or the fashion industry no one will think you’re cool and debonair. Have a mint instead.

Save up any of the money you earn. Eating poorly isn’t very fun, but on your one day off of a two-job, 70-hour work week you could fall asleep on the subway home and have your phone stolen. The thief may ask for remuneration — a “finder’s fee,” he may call it — to get your device back. When you drive into the suburbs to pay him, there is no possible way to express the mixture of disgust, shame and self-righteousness you will feel. Pay him the $60 he asks for and skulk away.

If you can, buy a nice suit. Employers will respect it. And an iron. I wish I had bought an iron sooner. It makes your shirts and pants look nice between washings and keeps them in good shape. That will be important when you’re not being paid and wearing two shirts a week to make copies and pick up other people’s coffee.

Tide makes a product called the Tide To Go stick that you can apply to small stains on shirts and ties and is really quite wonderful. It will save you hundreds in future dry cleaning bills, especially if you eat a lot of leftover pasta with tomato sauce for lunch.

Similarly, do not wear white shirts. You will stain the collar with the sweat from your neck and there are finite washes before it becomes yellowed. Go for a subtle pattern. You know why airports and high schools have patterned carpets? To hide the stains. Follow their lead.

If you are working an internship that pays you and gives you a 1099 form at tax time, pay the IRS even if the free H&R Block website charges you for dealing with 1099s. The IRS is really good at finding people and you do not want to owe them $500 next year because you didn’t pay now.

It is going to be incredibly frustrating and disheartening to graduate into the remnants of the worst economic climate in a lifetime, but things will indeed work out in the end. People who are qualified and work hard eventually get jobs doing something they care about. They will find themselves in a pleasing environment surrounded by lovely people doing fun stuff. In ten years, you won’t believe how good you had it. Or else you can just go to grad school.


Julian Hattem lives in Washington, DC, and has a blog and is even on Twitter. Photo: Shutterstock/hxdbzxy


16 Comments / Post A Comment

“If you have more than two or three different versions of your resume, you are doing it wrong. And after applying for job number five, you should have plenty of cover letters to be able to cut and paste paragraphs to suit your needs.”

Disagree 1000%, but that’s because my job/career is hugely writing based. The cover letter is not about presenting yourself to them, but about getting a CHANCE to present yourself to them. The cover letter is like an elevator pitch, and it needs to be tailored to your audience and exactly what they want to hear.

Example: My current job requested that applicants demonstrate creativity in their cover letters, so I claimed to be an immortal and all-but-unkillable member of an ancient secret society of writers. Obviously not all jobs are going to have special requirements like that, but I think if you’re just cutting and pasting your cover letter you’re doing yourself a disservice – depending no your industry, of course. My wife’s a chemist and they barely look at the CLs, apparently.

@Leon Tchotchke BTW, I agree about the resume, however.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@Leon Tchotchke You beat me to it.

The days when you could have one or two versions of your resume were in a different time – a time when someone actually read your resume. Now your resume is likely going to be scanned by a computer system to find keywords, and chances are the same keywords aren’t going to work for every job you apply to. I had one VERY long version of my resume that included all my applicable skills and experience, and I pared it down to one page based on the needs each employer listed in the job description. It took me several hours to apply for each job, but I had something like a 30% interview rate going – which made it worth it to me. There is way too much competition right now to waste your chances using uncustomized application materials.

@MuffyStJohn I honestly sort of have mixed feelings about the resume itself, out of the whole application package? For my first one or two jobs (which I guess IS the focus of this article, so… yeah) I was definitely focusing on the stuff that mattered out of the vast sea of mismatched responsibilities I had as an entry-level worker/intern.

But I think once you get a little further on and have some really legit experience, the resume should become increasingly straightforward unless you decide to switch careers and need to emphasize like side-roles. For me, though, my next job is likely to be more or less what I’m doing right now, but moreso. But you make a good point about the automated scanning of resumes, so maybe even then you’re on to something.

@MuffyStJohn Oh and sup fellow 1-page resume zealot.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

“Send all of the emails to all of the jobs that are hiring. All of them. You can decide whether or not you want the job when they offer it to you.”

Thank you for this. All my recently graduated friends are continually asking me whether they should bother applying for a job because [insert excuse about it potentially not being perfect here]. And I want to beat them about the head and shoulders with a wiffle ball bat. Repeat after me children: IT NEVER HURTS TO APPLY. (Also, I’m finding a lot of their excuses about it potentially not being perfect are based on pretty unrealistic expectations of the sort of position they are likely to land right after graduating into the smoking ruins of our economy.)

I’m constantly surprised by how ill-prepared my graduating friends are for job hunting. A large plurality of them give up after a cursory search for jobs in their field, and then after that go right back to applying for the sorts of retail positions they held back in high school, and then after that throw up their hands and just apply to grad schools.

I definitely place a large amount of blame on the economy…but also it seems like people are coming out of college with vastly unrealistic expectations and ideas about what sorts of jobs are out there and how one goes about getting them. As the only person in my primary circle of friends without a 4-year degree (I dropped out junior year), I shouldn’t also be one of the only two (of around 15) with a salaried position.

EM (#1,012)

@Holden Cauliflower I agree but I think that universities don’t adequately prepare students to look for jobs. Many people go through their whole degree without ever getting any applied experience. Other people (like me!) get lots of experience in the form of internships, research and teaching assistant positions, co-op jobs— and then when you graduate, all that help disappears and you realise you have no idea how to get a job on your own. It sucks.

Hi Julian!

We went to school together.

ranran (#1,002)

@myrna.minkoff Sup, me too, exciting! And the most memorable part of commencement for me was that Metal Rob was sitting right behind me and kept laughing at inappropriate moments and then going “ughhhhh, I’m still so drunk.”

@ranran I heard he’s getting his PhD at Harvard now?

jmhattem (#1,004)

@myrna.minkoff Hey! I know you! Hello!

dotcommie (#662)

@jmhattem HI JULIAN AND E.S. AND M.F. i went to skool with you too and I do think metal rob is at harvard

ranran (#1,002)

I would totally believe that.

Mandykins (#247)

I’m a little late to this party, but I really disagree about the thank you notes and maybe someone will still read this?

Don’t wait 24 hours if you can avoid it! Wait at least 60 minutes, though. At my last job before grad school, I was often part of the interview panel for entry-level candidates, and we rarely waited more than 24 hours to discuss and submit our hiring recommendations to HR. By that point, you’ve missed the window to have a thank you note mean anything. If in the process of getting the interview set up, HR seems reasonably efficient, you should expect the same once your interview is complete and not delay providing any information that might be helpful.

Julie the T (#1,022)

“(or even Philadelphia)”? How do I put this kindly…Please don’t move here as an alternative to living in New York. We have enough of your kind already. We are not–I repeat, NOT–the sixth borough. Thanks.

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